Will the remarkable change we’re witnessing in UK politics roll back the neo-liberal policies that have been so disastrous?Public hostility to Theresa May – already significant as a result of her election campaign – has increased, following the terrible and completely avoidable tragedy at Grenfell Tower last week: the destruction by fire of a tower block housing hundreds of working class tenants, many of whom were from black and ethnic minority communities. It is widely regarded as being directly the result of a combination of neo-liberal austerity policies and ruling class corruption, overlaid with racism and class contempt. Nothing could more powerfully encapsulate what is wrong with our politics and society. And the response to it from the survivors – the rejection of the lies and cover-ups, the refusal to comply any longer with despicable and immoral impositions – is powerful, profoundly articulate and essential for the future of our society.
Everyone senses that we are experiencing a remarkable change in British politics. The dominant ruling class narrative – that had been embraced by Labour –that there was no alternative to neo-liberalism and austerity policies, has been broken. And that is a vital step in the recovery of popular ownership of society, because pretty much everything that is happening in British politics and society today is the inevitable result of nearly four decades of neo-liberalism.
Thatcher began the really serious onslaught on ‘society’, on state ownership, on redistribution of wealth via the social wage, on workers’ rights and regulation, on many elements of the welfare state which had advanced the working class in this country since 1945. She destroyed much of British industry, both intentionally to smash the power of the organised working class, and in order to reorientate the economy towards financial services and global capital.
That process in the UK, also developing in the US under the Reagan/Thatcher axis, was paralleled through the imposition, by international financial institutions, of structural adjustment policies in Africa and Latin America, forcing economies open and ransacking them, leaving communities impoverished or even destitute. After the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, the same neo-liberal policy prescriptions were imposed on Russia and eastern Europe by the IMF, and western Europe was brought into the same fold through government spending caps imposed by the Maastricht Treaty.
Social democracy capitulated to the neo-liberal agenda and in essence what that has meant in Britain is that whole communities have been devastated by the de-industrialisation process initiated by Thatcher, the working class more widely ground down by attacks on the welfare state, since compounded by the austerity agenda post-2008. The failure of social democracy (up until the Labour election manifesto of 2017) to challenge this politically has meant that the Conservative Party narrative as to why this has happened to working class communities and our society more broadly, has been accepted and bought into by many. Firstly, the explanation was ‘there is no alternative’, secondly, that ‘we are all in it together’, and thirdly, that ‘immigrants are to blame’.
So part of the current crisis we face, Brexit and the rise of racism and xenophobia, is to a considerable extent because of an acceptance of a false Tory narrative used to justify the economic disaster, willingly inflicted on many communities by ruling elites that have continued to pursue neo-liberal economics because it profits them.
So neo-liberalism has brought our society to the brink of disaster: to extreme impoverishment – food banks, unemployment, homelessness, old people dying unattended in squalid conditions, hospitals struggling to treat their patients, necessary medicines being ruled out for cost reasons: to social fragmentation and division, where workers blame other workers for the economic catastrophe imposed by our ruling class, where people are abused because of the language they speak, where refugees are refused safe haven from wars our ruling class has wreaked upon them.
But now, finally, the equally inevitable consequence of neo-liberalism is taking place: that the people will organise and fight back, to defend their homes, their jobs, their lives, their self-respect. That fight back has had many manifestations internationally, over the decades, from Africa to Latin America and beyond. The resistance was so successful that for a generation in Latin America, the left was on the rise, with extraordinary and inspiring social, political and economic reforms transforming the lives of millions. Since 2008 when neo-liberalism has hit western Europe most brutally, we have seen the rise of the radical left in Europe, particularly in southern Europe, rejecting austerity and the destruction of their welfare states. In Britain, we have seen that same surge, essentially against extreme neo-liberalism and what it does not only to our economy but to our society as well, bursting forth through the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party, and then through the huge increase of Labour’s share of the vote at the general election. Corbyn has offered something different, not the Tory-lite of previous Labour governments, but a rolling back of neo-liberalism. It is crucial now to ensure that the Conservatives are pushed back further and Labour takes government.
But this will only be the first real battle in the war to recover what the working class has lost and to extend those earlier gains: to restructure economy and society in the interests of all. There is no doubt that the ruling class will fight back harder, using illegitimate and anti-democratic, even authoritarian methods, to prevent any real change.
We can look at how this process has unfolded against the earlier round of popular fight back against neo-liberalism. In Latin America today, left governments are under a terrible onslaught from US-backed rightwing forces, as evidenced very clearly in Brazil and Venezuela. In Greece, the Syriza government, even with mass popular support, was forced to capitulate to the European financial institutions. What can we draw from these experiences to shape the way we organise in support of a Corbyn government with a popular reform agenda?
In the first years of this century, movements globally were drawn together through the World Social Forum process, building on and extending the anti-globalisation movement which had success in some arenas against global capital – like the defeat of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, through globally coordinated action. Those were remarkable times for mass mobilisation, bringing together movements and peoples across the world. For a while there were many in the movements who thought that the days of parties winning power, as the way to achieve social and economic change, was over. But this perception – and the social forum process itself – ebbed away after the massive progressive advances in Latin America, which came about through the taking of state power. But subsequent events have shown that the taking of state power is clearly not an end to the story, even where acceding to government has been accompanied by very extensive political restructuring and reform.
Where progressive governments have come under attack, whether in Greece or Latin America, it is clear that government and party together is not enough. There are two other crucial ingredients to being able to take power and continue in power.
The first is the people: to have the people not just in support, but actively engaged in the political process and in the transformation of society. The people, mobilised and actively participating in coming to power and staying in power, through the movements, cannot be subordinate to the party, or disregarded or disenfranchised from the political process. A progressive government should not only be for the people, but of the people and through the people. And that relationship has to continue, because the moment it is undermined is when the progressive government becomes vulnerable to its class opponents.
The second is international solidarity. This is an essential factor in maintaining a progressive government in power and most significant where it can come from other like-minded governments. When Syriza was facing its crisis moment, before defeat, against the Troika of European capitalist institutions, the situation would have been very different if other European countries had shared their politics and stood up to the bullying. The reality is, they were on their own. Support, from the trade unions and the movements, was there in small part, but totally insignificant when it came to the crunch, even though everyone said that the Greeks were the lab rats of Europe and they had to be defended.
Occasionally our struggles may seem to be won nationally, but none of these struggles are now national struggles. They can only be properly won and sustained on an international basis, through international cooperation and solidarity. Party and movement together, nationally and internationally: that is the only way that the people can win, and the only way that the victory can be sustained.